ROBERTO SANTIBAÑEZ drove with me to a bakery in Mexico City called La Espiga expecting to be disappointed. Before leaving the city many years ago, he loved the tamales that a man sold on the sidewalk in front of the bakery, and he was hoping that maybe, just maybe, he could get those same tamales at that spot now.
We parked and walked toward the bakery, shuffling between vendors selling fresh juices, deep-fried quesadillas and corn slathered with mayonnaise. In front of the bakery, standing next to two large pots, was a woman selling tamales.
"There!" Mr. Santibañez said, his face brightening. "My tamales!"
The vendor, Maria de los Angeles, told us that her 80-year-old father had begun selling tamales at that location in the Hipódromo neighborhood when he was 18. Mr. Santibañez began to suspect that this was the daughter of the vendor who had fed him so well all those years ago. After he tasted the tamales, he was thoroughly convinced.
It was just one of the times during our visit that Mr. Santibañez, below, discovered that the foods he had so loved in his youth were right where he left them.
I had worked with Mr. Santibañez, 48, the owner of Fonda restaurant, in Brooklyn and Manhattan, on two cookbooks, "Truly Mexican" and the new "Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales," but we had never visited Mexico City together.
When I had traveled there, I e-mailed him photos of salsas, pumpkin seed sauces and other foods he introduced me to in his New York City kitchen. When he had visited Mexico City, he texted to lament that a tiny taqueria, once one of his favorites, had now turned into a chain, or called from a car-clogged street to say that he remembered often riding a horse there as a teenager.
"It was a different Mexico then," he told me.
In July, we finally met in Mexico City for an eating marathon. He was especially excited for the chance to rediscover some of his old favorites, which he rarely gets to visit amid so many dinners at home with family and friends. Our itinerary focused on the tacos, tortas and tamales that inspired his latest cookbook, but instead of being limiting, zooming in on these three foods revealed an abundance of variations that I did not even know existed. And exploring these many varieties was easy, since filling up never cost either of us more than 60 pesos, about $4.65 at 13 pesos to the dollar.
Decades of Tamales
Ms. de los Angeles, the tamal vendor next to the entrance to La Espiga in Colonia Hipódromo, dug around in her big pot and pulled out four glistening parcels, bagging three and handing one to Mr. Santibañez. He peeled back the corn husk packaging and took a bite of a coarse-grained, fluffy tamal -- essentially, dough made from corn soaked in slaked lime mixed with lard -- filled with tangy, lip-tingling salsa verde. Then he closed his eyes, as if he were hearing a long-forgotten song.
"This is the flavor of the streets, the workers, the soul of Mexico," he said. "Some Mexicans now think heat is only for the lower classes, so it's getting harder to find food with real punch."
Ms. Angeles said her father still often handles the morning shift, while she takes the evening shift. Mr. Santibañez asked her if she, like her father, would keep selling tamales there until she was 80. "I'll be here every day, as long as God gives me life," she replied.
Corner of Baja California and Insurgentes Sur; Colonia Hipódromo. Each tamal costs about 7 pesos.
The next morning, we leaned against a wall at the edge of Coyoacán's zócalo, or main plaza, another location where Mr. Santibañez had come as a teenager. We ate delicate, almost puddinglike Oaxacan-style tamales made by a vendor named Ana Pastelin. As he finished a banana-leaf-wrapped tamal filled with mole verde, fragrant with the herb hoja santa, he noticed my perplexed look as I watched Ms. Pastelin fill a roll with an unwrapped tamal to construct a sort of corn sandwich.
He said it was called a guajolota, or, rough translation, lady turkey. "It's an invention for our modern, busy lives that's meant to make the tamal easier and less messy to eat while on the go."
Minutes after we left, we walked past a man carrying a Styrofoam box on his shoulder and calling out, "Zacahuil! Zacahuil!" Mr. Santibañez explained that the man was advertising a tamal associated with the state of Veracruz but apparently in a miniature form: the original is large enough to contain whole chickens.
Avenida Hidalgo, between Lecaroz and El Globo bakeries; Colonia Coyoacán. Each tamal costs about 12 pesos.
To show me that items like tamales and tacos, often lumped by Americans like me into the "street food" category, are not the exclusive province of curbside entrepreneurs, Mr. Santibañez took me to Flor de Lis, a venerable restaurant a few blocks from the place where he held his first kitchen job. We ordered several kinds of tamales: those steamed in banana leaves (from the coast) and those in corn husks (from central Mexico).
"Mexican cuisine is really many cuisines," he said, nearly giddy as he took a bite of a sweet version with the flavor of fresh corn. "Even now that Mexico is a unified country, we are still many peoples with different languages, cultures, and foods."
Flor de Lis, Huichapan 21 A, Colonia Condesa; (52-55) 5286-0811. Two tamales with beans and salsa cost about 40 pesos.
The torta is, fundamentally, just a Mexican sandwich, but when Mr. Santibañez was doing the ordering this definition seemed to be an understatement. He took me, for instance, to El Turix, a dingy storefront in the now upscale Polanco neighborhood. The place traffics exclusively -- if you don't count the Batman action figures and dozen or so other toys for sale -- in cochinita pibil, the pork slowly cooked with achiote that is a specialty of the Yucatán.
From red plastic stools, we watched the counterman grab a judicious amount of red-hued pork from a vat, spread it on a roll, sprinkle on pink pickled onions and set the slim sandwich on a griddle to crisp. "You lose these places," Mr. Santibañez said wistfully, admitting that he had forgotten about El Turix until a friend recently reminded him of it. Only in a city this full of food could you forget something this good.
El Turix, Emilio Castelar 212, Colonia Polanco; (52-55) 5280-6449. Each slim torta costs about 22 pesos.
We visited El Capricho, where he and his friend Pepe would come for lunch after college classes; Pepe drove them there in a white Ford Mustang. The mustard-yellow room full of mismatched tablecloths and wooden stools did not inspire high expectations. Nor did Mr. Santibañez's order. He smiled as a sandwich, the size of my head arrived piled with halved hot dogs, mayonnaise and melted queso amarillo -- yellow American cheese.
The wonderfully sloppy, salty concoction was alive with the spark of house-pickled jalapeños, relief from all that richness, and served on a roll made specifically for El Capricho by the same bakery for 30 years. "Incredible, isn't it?" he said. "This is a modern classic, a Mexicanization of foreign ingredients that's been made with care."
El Capricho, Augusto Rodin 407, Colonia Mixcoac;(52-55) 5563-9158. Each giant torta costs about 80 pesos.
La Castellana's orange-and-white color scheme makes it look as corporate as El Capricho does homespun. Countermen clad in bright red shirts swiftly assemble tortas, slapping the bread filling-side down on a griddle and spreading the other half with thick crema. La Castellana, with five locations, serves exceptional tortas -- the bread light and crisp-crusted, the pickled jalapeños particularly fiery and the fillings a roster of well-executed classics, both familiar and not.
"These are nearly extinct," Mr. Santibañez said, lifting the tops from our tortas to reveal one bearing chunks of octopus and another stewed salt cod. Old standards like these have been overtaken by the hot dog tortas of the world, and unlike staunch traditionalists, he thinks it's possible to mourn the former while still celebrating the latter.
La Castellana, multiple locations; tortaslacastellana.com. Each torta costs about 30 pesos.
A Feast of Tacos
After a whirlwind taco tour with Mr. Santibañez, I realized that I had actually known very little about the Mexican food I thought I was best acquainted with. We downed countless tacos during our excursions, all of them excellent and many of them outside of the griddled-meat-on-tortillas box.
We went to Beatricita, the surviving location of a century-old operation where Mr. Santibañez went as a child for tacos de guisado, basically tacos topped with stews -- a "very Mexico City thing." We sat at a table with a view of a large griddle covered with puffing tortillas and a woman busily making more with an ornate metal press. Mr. Santibañez ordered, and soon a plate appeared holding a row of tortillas rolled around chicken tinga, mole poblano and mole verde. He was particularly taken by the latter, chicken coated in a verdant sauce rich from pumpkin seeds and thrilling from the mellow but persistent heat of cooked green chiles.
Beatricita, Londres 190-D, Colonia Zona Rosa; (52-55) 5511-4213; Each taco is about 25 pesos.
There was El Charro, in Coyoacán's main market, which turns out absurdly good carnitas tacos. My experience in the States had taught me that carnitas was little more than coarsely shredded pork crisped on a griddle. "That's an entire pig there, simmered, then caramelized in its own fat," Mr. Santibañez said as we contemplated El Charro's mound of pork.
Customers choose from the array: perhaps belly, leg, snout or, as we selected, surtida (a little bit of everything). Small tortillas arrived, warm and heaped with myriad pig bits. We spooned on a mouth-igniting pastel-green salsa made from tomatillos and avocado and nibbled on shards of chicharrón, fried pork skin, a gift from the woman presiding over the griddle.
El Charro, Mercado de Coyoacán, Location No. 289-290, Colonia Coyoacán; (52-55) 5554-8719. Each taco costs about 9 pesos.
At Tacos Manolo, a busy stand across the street from a more recently built brick-and-mortar location, we had tacos al pastor, made with chile-marinated pork carved from a two-foot-tall cylindrical mass on a vertical spit that looks like nothing so much as the shawarma you see at Middle Eastern restaurants. This, Mr. Santibañez explained, is one of many examples of the significant Arab influence on Mexican food. You can even order tacos arabes -- this fantastic pork on pita bread instead of tortillas.
Tacos Manolo, Luz Saviñón between Anaxágoras and Cuauhtémoc, Colonia Del Valle. Each taco costs about 8 pesos.
We never actively sought out tacos de canasta, or basket tacos. Every morning, corners fill with blue-plastic-lined baskets, perched on folding tables or attached to bicycles. Inside are stacks of tortillas that have been dunked in hot fat, folded in half around fillings like potato or beans, then allowed to steam in the basket until filling and tortilla nearly fuse into one delicious whole. Mr. Santibañez would amble over to buy a few whenever he spotted a vendor whose rustic salsa, on display in a plastic jar, looked particularly "mean."
Every rendition of these we tried was remarkably tasty. It was encouraging to think that one does not have to try hard, travel far or have a guide like Mr. Santibañez to eat well in this sprawling city, where trekking from one end to the other for dinner, as I sometimes do in New York, would be the height of absurdity, where the options appear to be infinite and it seems that everyone with a folding table is selling something good to eat. I wondered aloud whether he had ever stumbled upon a bad version of tacos de canasta. Mr. Santibañez thought a minute, smiled, then shook his head.travel
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.